Check out some palate-prepping behind-the-scenes shots of the chicken, ceviche and causa rellena in our slideshow.
At some point, I stopped perpetually thinking, This is an odd place to find such-and-such cuisine, about little Houston hole-in-the-wall restaurants. After 30 years of constantly being surprised by wonderful restaurants in out-of-the-way or unexpected locations, I would honestly be more puzzled if the ebb and flow of modest gems like these ceased.
Such is the case with Pollo Bravo, a small Houston-based chain of Mexican-Peruvian restaurants with its crown jewel sandwiched between a Jack in the Box and a gas station in a wholly unmemorable strip mall on Richmond. Unlike the upscale Latin Bites and its stiffly formal dining room, Pollo Bravo is the kind of place where you can relax over a Cristal beer or a potent sangria, its vibrantly saffron-colored walls and joyful atmosphere encouraging you to linger over a meal of rotisserie chicken or ceviche. It encourages you to eat slightly silly things like salchipapas and enjoy them with abandon, dipped into the omnipresent ají sauce that will box your ears with its spiciness. It encourages you to learn more about the Peruvian dishes scattered throughout the hybrid Mexican-Peruvian menu: What is chicha morada? What is a causa rellena?
At Pollo Bravo, the waitresses and the owner, Maribel Bravo, will gleefully explain each dish and its ingredients, its history, its cultural connections with other countries both near and far. They're eager to write down names of items you were interested in, eager to remember your face for the next visit and ask about your family. You feel like family yourself eating here.
At some other Peruvian restaurants in Houston, the service doesn't encourage this type of interaction. At Lemon Tree, the service is perfectly nice — when you can get a waiter to your table at all. And at Latin Bites, it's hesitant and reserved, making each breakthrough with a quiet waiter a weary triumph.
Much of that can be attributed to Maribel herself, one half of the husband-and-wife team that founded Pollo Bravo in 2006 and runs the chain today. The slim, pretty blond is almost always found at the Richmond location — my favorite of the three — waiting tables and greeting nearly every patron by name, with a hug and a kiss. It's telling that most of the patrons are Peruvian, like her, or Mexican, like her husband.
"These chilaquiles are just like my mom used to make," my friend Marco remarked over lunch one day. "Soft, you know?" He gestured to the pile of verdant tortilla strips on his plate, weighed down with salsa verde and ribbons of sour cream. The chilaquiles special at Pollo Bravo is one of the most compelling reasons to eat there during lunch, as it's only served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Along with that pile of chilaquiles, you also get a gracious serving of pinto beans and a quarter of Pollo Bravo's best item: its rotisserie chicken.
Peruvian restaurants are known throughout the United States for the succulent, juicy chicken that rotates on spits for hours, fat cooking gently into the white meat, its skin crisping in the heat. Yet there are distressingly few restaurants in Houston where one can find South American-style rotisserie chicken, despite the presence of more than a few Peruvian places.
Pollo Bravo has been successfully filling that void for the past four years to great success, however, and it shows in the packed dining room that greets you at lunch and dinner. I introduced my friend to the stuff a few weeks ago; ever since, he's been requesting it like a punch-drunk toddler who's been given his first taste of sugar. It's that good.
The restaurant won't reveal exactly what goes into the mix of 25 spices that coat the chicken, but the result is a garlic-and-cumin-spiked bird that is surprisingly mild until you dunk the tender pieces into that green ají sauce. Screamingly hot thanks to the inclusion of plenty of jalapeño peppers, the ají amarillo, as it's called, is the Peruvian answer to Mexican salsa verde, save one luscious trait: It's creamy. This creaminess can come from vegetable oil, mayonnaise or a combination of the two, but — like the chicken spices — the exact in-house recipe is guarded at every Peruvian restaurant. And like nearly everything else at Pollo Bravo, the ají sauce is made fresh in-house.
It also goes great on the aforementioned salchipapas, something which the kid in you (or any kids you bring along with you) will surely greet with glee: slightly curled strips of hot dogs sliced on top of French fries, mixed up with ketchup or mayonnaise if you see fit. Yes, that's it. But it's the kind of comfort food that Peruvian transplants to Houston seek out and have difficulty finding; to my knowledge, Pollo Bravo is the only place that serves salchipapas (although it's not a hard dish to replicate at home).
"We've been adding more and more Peruvian dishes to the menu," Maribel mentioned one day as she came by the table to inquire after our meal. "All the people who come in have been demanding it," she added. She was referring to the currently off-menu causa rellena, which my dining companion and I had devoured quickly before our meal.
The elegantly modern presentation of the dish could have been at home in any upscale dining room: two rounds of mashed yellow potatoes sandwiching a filling of chicken salad made with Pollo Bravo's rotisserie chicken, mayonnaise, lime and a bit of ají paste. It formed a sturdy yet chic tower, which we admired momentarily before tearing it down with our forks and eating every last bite.
Our infectiously cheerful waitress came by a few moments later and admired the destruction. "You liked it, I see!" she said as she cleared the plate. A minute later, she returned with a slip of paper and the words "causa rellena" written on it. "So you can remember for next time!" she smiled as she handed it to me. How could I forget?
While I've had wonderful luck with the rotisserie chicken, the chilaquiles and nearly everything else on offer at Pollo Bravo, the off-menu ceviche still needs a bit of tweaking here and there to bring it up to par with the rest of the dishes. One day, the thick strips of tilapia will be soft and well-marinated with creamy citrus sauce, each bite evoking flashes of hot summer days. The next, the strips of fish are gristly at the edges and tough, barely soaking up any marinade (and making you wonder if they're cooked all the way through). Still, at $12.95 for a portion that's easily split between two people, it's a great deal...when the fish comes through.
I want Pollo Bravo to shape up its ceviche to be on par with the dazzling dishes that are already being offered at Latin Bites and Lemon Tree. Houston is a city that should, by all rights, have a wonderful variety of ceviches at every turn — not just Peruvian-style, but the Mexican ceviches like the seafood-laden Vuelve a la Vida cocktails found everywhere from Connie's to Hugo's and the hybrid ceviches found at more modern restaurants like Yelapa Playa Mexicana, where you'll find "Sevichey Tejano" on the menu.
Pollo Bravo doesn't need any improvement when it comes to its desserts and traditional drinks, like chicha morada. All made in-house, these items instantly transport you to another place entirely. That's what I love about eating ethnic food, after all: the mini-vacation and temporary sense of being immersed in another culture without paying plane fare.
Chicha morada is a traditional Peruvian drink made from fermented purple corn. Although it's fermented, it's not alcoholic and is enjoyed more like iced tea. At Pollo Bravo, they boil ears of the purple corn in a giant pot with slices of pineapple and warm spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. It's an acquired taste, but no more so than the cans of Inka Cola served here, and it's worth a try just for the unique flavors — tropical and earthy and sweetly spiced all at once.
Another wholly unique flavor is that of the lúcuma, a fruit that's sustained the Peruvian people for thousands of years. Incredibly rich in nutrients like B vitamins, the fruit has a flavor that can best be described as a cross between caramel and sweet potatoes. Needless to say, this unusual combination is best showcased in desserts. Here, you can try either a flan de lúcuma or helado de lúcuma, but the ice cream is my preferred choice. The custardy, almost maple-syrupy flavor of the fruit makes for a strikingly rich ice cream that's best washed down with nibbles of the ladyfinger served on the side. It's easy to see after one dish of the ice cream why lúcuma is vastly preferred in Peru to either vanilla or chocolate.
It's a sweet surprise at the end of a meal that's full of them.
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